Friday, 11 July 2014

Chuck Noll: Who was a better NFL coach?

Legendary Pittsburgh Steeler coach Chuck Noll, winner of four Super Bowl championships in six years.

Recently, I heard about the passing of Chuck Noll, and it brought back a flood of memories. Through
the years I have come to really consider him one of the best coaches in NFL history but, like his peer and rival John Madden, he was always underrated. It was as if the teams coached themselves because they were so full of talent. Well, I don’t believe that was the case.

In fact, Chuck Noll has to be considered one of the best coaches in NFL history based solely on the fact he won four Super Bowls – and it was in a span of six years. Then, more than a decade later, with a team that no one could say was full of talent, he won coach of the year.

What more can you say?

The first time
When I first encountered him, he was the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that I never really liked at the time, but came to respect as the years went by. The first ever Super Bowl I watched featured the Steelers against the Dallas Cowboys. I took an instant liking to Dallas' quarterback, Roger Staubach, and the Steelers stood in his way. Worse, due in part to a dropped pass in the endzone by Dallas, Pittsburgh won that Super Bowl. I had bet my dad $5, and losing that made me dislike the Steelers even more.

The next year, the Los Angeles Rams upset the Cowboys in the NFC en route to the Super Bowl and faced Noll and the Steelers. I had started to cheer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who LA beat in the NFC championship game, so I was somewhat ambivalent about who won the Super Bowl. Yet again though, Pittsburgh triumphed. And even then, I really didn’t like teams who won too much.

And then the Steelers kind of faded from view.

Stopping Elway
The next time I really took notice of the Steelers was in 1985. They were not a super-talented team, but qualified for the playoffs. Awaiting them was the Denver Broncos led by phenom John Elway. I really had no time for Elway after he blackmailed the Baltimore Colts into trading him to Denver. He threatened to play baseball instead, remain unsigned, and re-enter the draft the following year. That would leave the Colts with nothing for the first overall pick. I was not a Colts fan at that point, but Elway’s antics undermined the draft. It was designed to help bad teams get better by giving them first crack at the best young players. Elway threatened to destroy that. I have never liked anyone who considered themselves bigger than, or above, the game.

So, as the Steelers got ready to face the Broncos, I found myself cheering for Pittsburgh. By then, there was not much left from those Super Bowl teams besides receiver John Stallworth. They were an under dog now, and I always liked the under dog.

And they were still coached by Chuck Noll.

They had returned to the playoffs the previous year, finishing first in the AFC Central before being eliminated by my L.A. Raiders, who went on to win the Super Bowl. In 1984, they repeated as champions of the AFC Central, facing the Broncos, champions of the AFC West, in one of the AFC Divisional playoff games.

The Steelers were led by a good defence, as always, and quarterback Mark Malone, talented receiver Louis Lipps, and runningback Frank Pollard.

The teams met in Mile High Stadium in Denver. Before the game, broadcasters Merlin Olsen and Dick Enberg talked about Elway being injured. I distinctly remember Olsen emphasizing that without Elway’s mobility, the Bronco offence became “very ordinary”. Well, the Denver quarterback trotted out with his thigh wrapped tightly, so he likely was hampered a bit by injury.

The game went back and forth, with Denver leading 17-10 in the third quarter when Malone hit Lipps for a touchdown to tie the game at 17 with 15 minutes to play.

It looked very much like overtime loomed until, with about three minutes left, Steeler safety Eric Williams intercepted a pass and returned it deep into Denver territory. Pollard would go on to punch it in, giving the Steelrs the improbable 24-17 win.

The next week, Pittsburgh went into Miami for the AFC Championship Game. That was the first time I heard Steeler receiver John Stallworth talk about “One for the thumb”. There were still players on the team from those dynasty years who had four Super Bowl rings and were looking for an unprecedented fifth – one for the thumb.

It was not to be. Miami quarterback Dan Marino had set all kinds of passing records and, although Malone threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns, along with three interceptions, Marino passed for 421 yards and four touchdowns, both AFC Championship records, to cruise to a 45-28 win. The joy was short-lived as Marino was harried, harassed, and harangued by the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. Marino would never play in another Super Bowl after that either.

Individual glory – at last
The 1989 season did not hold much promise. The Steelers had finished 5-11 in 1988, and there was not much hope for any improvement when they opened the 1989 season with a 51-0 loss at home to Cleveland, the worst defeat in franchise history. That was followed the next week by a 41-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who were defending AFC champions.

However, the Steelers managed to rally, finishing with a 9-7 record, good enough for third in the AFC Central, and clinching a Wildcard berth in the last week of the season. Awaiting them in the AFC Wildcard game was the Houston Oilers who beat the Steelers in both regular season meetings, 27-0 and 23-16.

The Steelers would have the last laugh, shocking the Oilers in the Houston Astrodome, as Gary Anderson kicked a field goal in overtime for the 26-23 win.

Again, the clock struck midnight for Cinderella the following week, as the Steelers put up an amazing fight in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game, but fell 24-23 to Elway and the Broncos. Denver, however, would suffer the same fate as Miami five years earlier, advancing all the way to the Super Bowl before being blown out by those same San Francisco 49ers.

Later that year Chuck Noll, winner of four Super Bowls, finally was named coach of the year. What a way to end the 1980s.

Parting thoughts
Chuck Noll may well be the greatest coach in the Super Bowl era of NFL history, but he will seldom if ever even be in the conversation. No other coach in league history has won four Super Bowls. None of the Bills – Walsh, Parcells, or Belichick. Not Vince Lombardi, John Madden, or Joe Gibbs. And Noll did it in six years.

Yet, pundits chalk that success up to the talent. They never acknowledge the fact he spent countless hours on the road scouting that talent. Or that he coached the fundamentals and moulded that raw talent into all-stars and champions. Or that, had they not won all those Super Bowls, he would have been blamed for not getting his team ready.

If football is about results, no one achieved better results – and in a shorter period of time – than Chuck Noll. Add to that the fact that, more than a decade later, he took a team that had finished 5-11, and made them into a playoff team and a contender.

He was one of the best ever, without a doubt.

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